What would cause someone to fall to their death from the basket of a hot-air balloon, especially when they were alone up there? How could a dead body appear in an articulated truck filled with snow when they had been seen hours after the truck had been loaded? How could a woman be stabbed in a shower with a witness to nobody going near the shower? And why would someone have a habit of shooting random cacti?
Edward D Hoch, the master of the mystery short story has many famous sleuths – Dr Sam Hawthorne, Captain Leopold, Nick Velvet, Jeffrey Rand and Simon Ark being the most famous. This collection, however, features – the clue being in the title – Hoch’s female sleuths, namely Susan Holt, the promotions manager for a department store chain, bodyguard Libby Knowles and police detective Annie Sears. Seventeen stories of murder and mystery – but how do these stories compare to his better known sleuths?
This book has been in development at Crippen and Landru since as long as I can remember – the website used to have a “Coming Soon” page and, if I recall correctly, it’s been on it at least since the second Sam Hawthorne collection came out, and finally it’s here, and available on ebook too, a boon for us UK readers for whom it’s tricky to get copies of the publisher’s books. Admittedly, there are a couple of minor formatting problems, but nothing that distracts from the quality of the tales herein.
It’s worth mentioning that of the seventeen stories, eleven of them feature Susan Holt – the idea of a promotions manager gives an excuse for her to travel the world to investigate a mystery at whatever location Hoch had found some interesting trivia about. There’s a fair few impossible crimes here as well, with some very clever ideas here. A Craving For Chinese, with the murder of a death-row prisoner by a poisoned last meal, and A Shower of Daggers, with the aforementioned stabbing in a shower, stand out, but most of these stories are strong. Most were written between 1993 and 1998, but the last two, written much later in 2006 and 2008 are, I thought, a little weaker. A Convergence of Clerics in particular feels like a mystery that Susan Holt had been shoe-horned into as the sleuth, whereas the last one, A Gateway to Heaven, while regaining the feeling of the earlier books, is, I thought, a little obvious.
The Libby Knowles and Annie Sears stories are entertaining, although suffer a little from having less character development. I can see why the Knowles stories are short-lived, as Hoch seems to acknowledge in the second tale that a bodyguard can’t keep having her charges get murdered, so he probably wisely knocked this series on the head. The Annie Sears, detailing a police detective finding her feet in a new department, had more potential – The Cactus Killer, the first story, is a bit odd, but the other two are very good – but this series was curtailed by Hoch’s death. It would have been interesting to see how that series would have developed.
This collection is a good demonstration of the variety of tales that Hoch can tell and I’m curious to see where Crippen and Landru go next with their collections of his work, following an upcoming collection of Simon Ark tales. I’d like to see the Alexander Swift stories, but, as with the Stanton and Ives tales, there aren’t enough to fill a single volume. Perhaps some more Ben Snow tales? There are plenty of those to go around. Anyway, whatever is forthcoming, I look forward to it.